Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant asks the educational blogging community to write about effective (or ineffective) school technology leadership today. School leadership in general has been on my mind the last few months, and will undoubtedly find its way to this blog sooner rather than later, but to address Dr. McLeod’s focus on school technology, I thought I’d give a shout-out to a former supervisor of mine who I feel deserves much credit for his willingness to support my explorations with educational technology, and could serve as a model to other supervisors whose teachers would like their students to collaborate and publish online.
Mr. X was the third supervisor I’d worked under as an English teacher at my former school, but the first under whom I started working with wikis, podcasts, etc. with my students. Whenever I have spoken about these experiences, formally or informally, I make it a point to credit Mr. X as integral to whatever degree of success my students experienced via these projects, not because he had any hand in implementing them with me, but because he did four things that I think any supervisor would do well to emulate:
1. He asked questions. I don’t discount how fortunate I was to have a supervisor who, not knowing terribly much about a wiki, was willing to say, “I’m interested; tell me more about it and why this could be beneficial to learning.” He very easily could have shut me down without a discussion, but instead, he took time out of his exceedingly busy schedule to spend many sessions with me, not only learning about whatever project I initially proposed, but also to follow up with me, observe my classes, and speak to my students. He was also available to me as a sounding board; quite a few times, I visited him to say, “I have this great idea for a project; here’s where I think I want to go with it and how I’d like to do it, but I just can’t figure out x or y.” Again, it would have been easy for him to take that as a sign of ‘weakness’ or unpreparedness on my part and shut down the project, but instead he saw it for what it was: one colleague who doesn’t have all the answers reaching out to another to help him create the best possible learning situation for his students. He was willing to engage in discussion about teaching and learning (and give suggestions!) in a medium that was new to him, for which I give him much credit.
2. He supported me outside of his office, by which I mean that when word of my tech-based projects floated up the administrative ladder, he was willing to stand behind me and support my students online projects all the way up to the district superintendent (who, it must be said, also ended up being very supportive and appreciative of my efforts). Again, it would have been easy to tell me “You’re on your own”, but he had the professional integrity to stand with me as I tried what some might have considered unorthodox or unusual – certainly new for that school at that time.
3. He looked at the big picture. When I approached him about replacing one of my research papers in my curriculum with a wiki-based collaborative project, one of the first questions he asked (see #1) was about the skills each assignment aimed to teach or hone. When he was sufficiently satisfied that there was extensive overlap in skills between the research paper and wiki project, as well as considered the additional benefits I thought the wiki project brought he greenlit the change. As much as I hate the cliche, he was willing to think outside the box and consider an unusual request that others might have dismissed out of hand.
4. He trusted me as a professional. This is no small feat. In an era where Internet filters and draconian usage policies imply that teachers cannot be trusted to go outside their school network’s walled garden, Mr. X not only supported my decision to do so, but also to take my students with me. I don’t believe he would have supported me so fervently if he didn’t trust that I knew what I was doing (or at least had a pretty good idea, with one or two contingency plans, just in case!). This has less to do with technology, in my opinion, and more to do with good leadership in general. I have always felt that good leaders don’t try to be experts in every area; rather, they identify the people around them who are strong in certain areas and look to them for advice to supplement their own strengths. Mr. X is an incredibly knowledgable teacher with many years of experience, but in this one small arena, I was more knowledgable, and he trusted me enough to let me lead the way into heretofore uncharted territory.
Overall, the administrative attitude towards technology in my old school was very positive and progressive. I’ve said many times that we had the most liberal filtering software of any district I’ve heard of, and there was (and, I believe, still is) a strong “teachers teaching teachers” professional development model. That said, there still existed among the faculty the fear, ignorance, and apathy that comprises much of the opposition to educational technology and Internet-based projects. I don’t know how differently things would have turned out if this hadn’t been the atmosphere in which Mr. X and I worked, but I think this goes to show that support for educational technology must be systemic and built-in in order for it to benefit teachers’ professional practice and, ultimately, their students.
The last thought with which I’d like to leave you, especially if you are in a position of educational leadership, is to be willing to break from convention when considering implementation of educational technology. The paranoid and alarmist responses I’ve most often heard coming from parents and administrators seem to be the result of considering the worst-case scenario. I would ask all of you who are in a position to support educational technology to ask yourself not, “what’s the worst that can happen”, but rather, “what’s the best that can happen?” Chances are that reality will lie somewhere in between the extremes.